A mild breeze tumbles through an alley just wide enough for you to walk through, and the air wafts of strong, freshly brewed coffee. You’re so enthralled by Stone Town’s commotion when you arrived that you forgot to thank the driver who dropped you off in the middle of it all.
The tangle of streets and architectural angles offer a sense of intrigue and romance: peeling walls, high-reaching balconies, tight-knit streets, all of it hugging the Indian Ocean. Stone Town feels a bit like Havana, Cuba, and equally as photogenic. Immediately you can tell:
Stone Town has stories to tell!
It’s your first day in Zanzibar. You’ve stopped here before whisking off to your beachside resort in the north. What to do? Where to go? What to see, smell, taste? Let’s take a walk through the highlights of Stone Town and see what we find.
First, a Little History!
As you begin your exploration afoot, you can feel the history running deep here, through every side street, every smile from the local vendors, every whitewashed stone that gives the place its namesake.
The first of Zanzibar’s inhabitants reach back over 20,000 years. More recently, waves of colonialism have shaped Zanzibar into what it is today: a living, breathing convergence point of power (and a quarter million people!).
The island is actually named Unguja, the largest in a cluster of isles 25-50 kilometers (16-31 miles) off the coast of Tanzania. Its inlet made a defensible port for colonial powers—Persian, Indian, Omani, Portuguese, British—to conduct business, namely spices and slaves. The slave economy pivoted here from Stone Town and was one of world’s last known slave trades, eventually shut down by the British in 1873.
What followed was political upheaval and the shortest war in history, the Anglo-Zanzibar War. It lasted less than 45 minutes. I’ve baked bread faster than that! Here’s a three-minute video explaining the nano-conflict:
Speed up to 1964 and we witness the Zanzibar Revolution, a people’s uprising that overthrew the Sultan of Zanzibar and would lead to political independence and merging national ties to mainland Tanzania. Stone Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, due mainly to its cultural fusion, architectural uniqueness, and geopolitical utility. (Source)
So, here is our list of 5 things to see and do in Stone Town:
1. Elephant Spikes and Baraza Benches
You understand this UNESCO designation after noticing architectural flair everywhere, from spikes affixed to doors which fended off elephants, to Arab mansions and lavish Indian residences complete with balconies and baraza benches. (Source).
Famous architect Renzo Piano once said, “One of the great beauties of architecture is that each time, it is like life starting all over again.” Here in Stone Town you can see painted on these walls the wrinkles of hundreds of lifetimes.
2. Grab Coffee, Sit, Watch
After strolling past the oldest structure in town, the Old Fort, you stop for a morning buzz at the Zanzibar Coffee House. Any coffee aficionado will agree that Tanzania grows some of the finest beans on the planet, and here your first whiffs of the dark bean sharpen your senses after ordering a macchiato. It’s one of our favorite places to stay, too, if you’re planning an overnight. Easy Travel can arrange accommodations anywhere on the island (Where to stay?).
3. Visit Famous Ghosts
Remember British rock band Queen? (“We are the Champions, My Friends…”). Well, Queen’s lead singer Freddy Mercury was born and raised right here in Zanzibar (Source). His parents were of Parsi descent and they toggled back and forth between India and Zanzibar before the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution moved them to England for good. Today, you can still visit his home.
4. Slave Museum
Tippi Tip’s legacy of colonialism and slavery leads you to your next stop, the Slave Museum. Here you descend in our shadowy past, into the dark, cramped cells where African slaves were held for days before auction. No fewer than 50,000 slaves passed through this port annually, until it was abolished by the British in 1873. Heavy stuff, but necessary.
5. World-Class Markets
Coming back into the light, Stone Town’s main market, Darajani, bursts at the seams when you arrive. Here you squeeze past hanging meats and fruits, sacks of fragrant spices, gifts for loved ones, and nearly every smell and shout under the Zanzibari sun. If you decide to stay in Stone Town for the evening, you can scope out the Night Market at Forodhani Gardens (https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/zanzibars-night-market), a gastronomical boon of food and drink. My best advice? Arrive hungry. Here’s a little primer on Tanzanian eats and treats: view more.
The Main Takeaway
Nothing completes a trip to Tanzania like some R&R in Zanzibar. So if you’re there to spend several days of beachcombing, be sure and carve out a day to explore Stone Town, the true heartbeat of this island. It’s busy… Beautiful… Tragic. It’s important.
All things converge here into the most sensorial of urban wonders, and its bound to give you some things to which you’ll never forget. Easy Travel organizes informative cultural tours of Stone Town to provide historical context and ensure you don’t miss a thing. Call us today.